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After documenting fans for two seasons, I finally got to become one.

All things considered, it was great to be back in the arena.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

I made my way back to Nationwide Arena on Tuesday night for my first-ever Columbus Blue Jackets game as a civilian and for my first-ever in-person sporting event since the pandemic swept every corner of the globe. It was fun! I had a great time. Shout out to my friend Sarah who brought me along!

My last time in the arena was when I was working as a contracted photographer for the NHL to document the fan experience for social media at every home game. I started attending every game in that role in the fall of 2018 and had no earthly idea that March 1, 2020 was going to be the Blue Jackets’ last game with fans in a very, very long time. Here’s a birds-eye picture I snagged from their win over the Vancouver Canucks at a very crowded arena that night:

I had been going to literally every single home game for nearly two seasons straight, and I can certainly say with hindsight that I took that privilege for granted. I loved the job, I loved the arena, I loved seeing my buddies who worked there every game, I loved the atmosphere and energy that Nationwide Arena contains when thousands of fans are housed inside. Perhaps it’s naive to say that when games were cancelled, I was shocked and knew that meant sh*t was serious - that’s certainly what made the pandemic real for me.

Fast forward nearly 14 months and my NHL role is still on hold - bummer - but I had the unique opportunity to attend my very first game as a fan, and I literally could not wipe the smile off my face the whole night. Forget the crappy season, forget the fact that I was going to see the 8th-place Blue Jackets barely squeak by the 7th-place Detroit Red Wings in a shootout - I got to be back in the arena and I was allowed to wear my CBJ gear for the first time ever at a home game! I wore my Viva Elvis Homage t-shirt so I will happily take credit for his excellent performance that night.

I kicked the evening off with another exciting first - I went to R Bar for the first time before a game! I had a 24 oz. Labatt Blue Light in a can and I’d never felt like more of a hockey fan. We meandered over to the game and sat in our seats just in time for the first period Bjorkstrand goal to be recalled - I won’t get into a full-blown recap of the game; if you want to read what happened on Tuesday, here’s the link - basically nothing went down during regulation or OT (literally it was 0-0 the whole time) and the Blue Jackets won in a shootout and ended their long winless streak, so that was fun to witness in person.

What was most fascinating to me was being back for a game in such a watered-down sense - clumps of fans seated far away from each other in the lower and upper bowls, everyone in face masks unless they were sipping a beer or chowing on a slice of Jet’s Pizza (another new thing for me; I was used to all the Papa John’s branding). There was no pizza song or tossing pizza boxes, which was a huge plus for me since that song haunts my nightmares, and Stinger was still out and about banging his drum while wearing a mask.

I was really impressed by the game experience, diluted as it was. Perhaps I was buoyed by my joy at being back in the arena after such a long, seemingly endless hiatus, but the people who were there seemed genuinely excited and happy, which is just not the same experience I’ve personally had while watching this team struggle from my living room couch all season. At R Bar, I told my friends I had three expectations for the game:

  1. An Oliver Bjorkstrand goal (accomplished, if you count his shootout goal).
  2. A Max Domi assist (nearly accomplished, it was taken away after review).
  3. To see team reporter Jeff Svoboda and Larry, my favorite usher buddy who managed the section I normally took most of my photographs in pre-pandemic (accomplished and accomplished)!

Jeff and I got to see each other and chat for a little in between the first and second period, which was excellent - Jeff, if you read this, it was great seeing you and we’ll grab beers soon - and by a wonderful stroke of luck, Larry was working that night as well and we got to catch up after 14 months of not seeing each other. His wife, kids and grandkids are doing great!

My melancholy moments included missing Nick Foligno, David Savard and Pierre-Luc Dubois, who were three of my favorite players to watch and photograph - most of whom I will probably not see play in a Blue Jackets jersey ever again. Ugh! You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. But on the flip side, I was thrilled to see Patrik Laine, Jack Roslovic, and Max Domi play in person for the first time.

Anyways, I was thrilled that the Jackets were able to pull out a win in my presence; it was amazing to experience the game as a fan instead of a worker and my heart was so full to be back in an arena, vaccinated, and watching one of my favorite teams play. Here’s to next season being even better, safer, and more fun for everyone!